Quintessentially Tata: My Journey Over 55 Years – Syamal Gupta

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The former Chairman of the iconic TATA Group of companies in India and the recipient of two of the highest civilian awards of India, the Padma Vibhushan (2008) and Padma Bhushan (2000), Ratan Tata, once famously said. “What I would like to do is to leave behind a sustainable entity of a set of companies that operate in an exemplary manner in terms of ethics, values and continue what our ancestors left behind.” This quote epitomizes the very ethos for which this sprawling multinational conglomerate stands for. The business practices of the TATA Group of companies have birthed a paradigm shift in the very fundamental manner in which a Corporate Group goes about its activities. The “TATA way” thus stands for integrity, empowerment and aggrandizement. One classic illustration of the apotheosis that is the TATA way is the path-breaking labour welfare measures which were instituted within the Group even before the relevant statutes were incorporated. Some of them include an eight-hour working day, free medical aid, establishment of a welfare department, leave with pay, workers’ provident fund scheme, workmen’s accident compensation scheme, maternity benefits, profit sharing bonus and retiring gratuity. Maybe this is the direct result of TATA employees putting in decades with the company, ignoring much more lucrative competing offers.

Syamal Gupta is one such stalwart. Joining Tata Steel Limited (formerly Tata Iron and Steel Company) in September 1955 as a trainee in the Central Engineering and Development Department (CEDD), Mr. Gupta bid adieu to the Group fifty-five years later. At the time of his retirement, Mr. Gupta was director of Tata Sons, and chairman of Tata International Ltd, Tata Elxsi, Tata Consulting Engineers, Tata Advance Material and Tata BP Solar. At present, he is a trustee at Tata Medical Centre Trust and is also Honorary Consul of the Republic of Namibia. Mr. Gupta, at 86 has penned a warm memoir of his days at the TATA Group. “Quintessentially TATA” provides valuable insights into the values, culture and practices behind the TATA philosophy. He informs his readers about his exposure to, experience with and the subsequent assimilation of the Tata set values and principles.

The TATA Group as Mr. Gupta elucidates has an uncompromising philosophy of f putting community development at the centre of business strategy. A classic case in point being the “Zambia Model.” When the TATA Group made its initial foray into Africa by establishing Tata Zambia Limited, things did not look promising at the outset. A draconian set of Indian foreign exchange polices invited the displeasure of the Zambian Government. Exporting of goods was difficult with a laborious process of filling up a multitude of forms. “Foreign exchange allowances were low. Anyone travelling abroad had to apply for permission from the Indian government and the Reserve Bank of India, enclosing a letter of invitation from parties abroad, list of meetings scheduled and other relevant details. For instance, when Dhawan was deputed to Zambia, he had to leave within a week of his appointment or be classified as an Indian Resident.”

When Mr. Syamal Sen in his capacity as the Managing Director of TATA Exports Limited visited Zambia, this unfortunate fact manifested in a series of explicit intransigence displayed by the Zambian Ministers with whom Mr. Gupta had sought an audience. Resolving to set matters back on track, Mr. Gupta initiated a raft of measures.

“TEL created a small engineering department in Kolkata where we re-engineered spare parts that were required in Zambia and started exporting them. While developing the business, we took help from Tata Steel. It was an interesting process, which we enjoyed doing and it became a viable business proposition for us; especially when Zambian Copper Mines appointed TZL as its procurement agent for spare parts from India.”

“In later years, TZL bid for acquiring the full equity of Pamodzi Hotel and secured a 70 per cent stake. The hotel came under the Taj Hotels and Resorts umbrella. It has undergone significant refurbishment to ensure that standards are met, and brand consistency maintained.”

“…. Fish farms set up at various sites generated employment for the surrounding communities. We drew from resources within the country using an indigenous species of fish, the Tilapia, to provide protein and nourishment for the majority of the population. The people of Zambia now had a new source of protein to choose from and a more balanced diet.”

“We also ventured into power generation by setting up a 120-MW ITT hydropower station located in Southern Province. It was a joint venture between TZL and Zambia Electric Supply Corporation (ZESCO). Built at a cost of $245 million on the Kafue River, some 300 km from the confluence of the Kafue and Zambezi rivers, the Kafue Hydropower Station was originally constructed to provide storage capacity for the Kafue Gorge Power Station, with both ITPC and ZESCO operating the Itezhi-Tezhi Dam as a shared facility.”

The result: President Kaunda appointing Mr. Gupta as the Honorary Consul General for the Republic of Zambia in Mumbai in July 1987.

Little would Mr. Gupta have dreamt of being conferred with such as prestigious title when he first joined TISCO. In fact, Mr. Gupta shares a very interesting and humorous experience involving his very early days at TISCO. His first assignment extending for a couple of weeks involved his writing the letters A, B, C, D in both upper case as well as in lower case! This exercise in inculcating diligence was followed by associations with some of the giants within the TATA Group such as Sumant Moolgaokar, Ratan Tata, Nani Palkhivala, Darbari Seth, Freddie Mehta, and JRD Tata himself. TISCO also assisted Mr. Gupta in completing his higher studies in the field of advanced Mechanics in Imperial College London, a stint which led to him building lasting relationships with the likes of Professors Hugh Ford.

Mr. Gupta’s glory days were however spent in Singapore. He was the personality behind the establishment and functioning of Tata Precision Industries (TPI). Initially occupying two rooms in the Imperial Hotel, TPI moved into 1, Liu Fang Road, Jurong. TPI in tandem with the Singapore government also established the Tata Government Training Centre (TGTC) jointly under the auspices of the Industrial Training Board of Singapore, TELCO and Economic Development Board. TPI was manned with the best of both intellectual capital and mechanical tools. To remain competitive, TPI introduced CAD/ CAM technology and also arranged for the more advanced CNC machines from Swiss, Japanese and German manufacturers such as Studer, SIP Degussa, Deckel, Argie, Chermilles and Titutoyo. During a visit to the premises, the chairman of EMIL Group of Companies of Australia remarked, ‘I thought that Taj Mahal was located in India!’

The book also contains humorous passages that bears testimony to both the wit and wisdom of some of the most arresting personalities within the TATA Group. “Once, while crossing the street in Singapore, JRD (JRD Tata) asked Dr Mehta a few questions related to Indian statistics. He wanted to know the per capita power consumption and the number of villages in India. I was impressed with Dr Mehta’s instant answers. The next day, JRD again enquired about the number of villages in India. I was surprised that Dr Mehta now gave out a different answer. I tried to draw his attention to the apparent error, but he abruptly gestured to me to remain quiet. Later, in his own inimitable style, Dr Mehta put it across to me, ‘Look Syamal, I am an economist not an engineer like you. Engineers see all measures in black and white. For engineers two plus two is always four. Economists may vary figures as per the circumstances. Definitions change, boundaries change, anything is possible. So, you see, whenever I talk to JRD, never interrupt.”

A very interesting segment of the book deals with a chance meeting between Jamsetji Tata and Swami Vivekananda, during the course of which was sown the seeds behind the establishment by the TATAs of the hallowed Indian Institute of ScienceMr. Gupta also reveals to the readers the mettle and métier of the leadership at the TATA Group. He waxes eloquent, in particular, about the extraordinary capabilities of the genius that was Sumant Moolgaokar. “Another Tata stalwart, Moolgaokar was one of the greatest engineers India has produced—a man with farsighted vision. An engineer with hands-on experience, he even had a workshop at his home. He was a man of few words and always wanted a quiet environment to work in. He paid great attention to detail and I have always tried to follow his advice to pay major attention to minor details. JRD and Moolgaokar had many traits in common; perhaps that is why they were great friends. Prof. Ford, who was younger than Moolgaokar, once told me, ‘Syamal, if Sumant were in the US he would be the chairman of General Motors.”

The TATA group of companies has this inveterate tendency to create an enduring and lingering impression in every location they set up their business. In Singapore, Syamal and his team were commonly known by the moniker of “TATA men.” This could lead to quite a confusing as is illustrated by Mr. Gupta in a humorous passage. “One morning, Ratan and I were waiting in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel for our car to arrive. In a few moments, we heard an usher calling out, ‘Tata your car has arrived.’ Ratan approached the usher to ask if he was saying something to him. Pat came the reply, ‘No Sir, I am calling out for Tata to tell him that his car has arrived,’ all the time gesturing to me as if I was Tata. Ratan was amused and laughed.”

The stellar efforts of Mr. Gupta led to a multitude of companies within the TATA fold establishing their presence in Singapore. More prominent examples being Tata Consultancy Services, Tata Communications, NatSteel Holdings, Tata Technologies, Voltas, Tata Chemicals, Tata Power, Tata NYK Shipping, Kalzip Asia (a division of Tata Steel Europe), Tata Capital and York Transport Equipment (Asia), among others, are located in the island state.

Mr. Gupta’s book, even though concise is a glimpse into the personalities, principles and policies of a conglomerate which is driven by a ruthless passion, yet tempered by an even more remorseless set of principles. From a reading of Mr. Gupta’s book, it is clear that Cause is never sacrificed at the altar of capitalism at the TATA Group. Precisely how every business must operate. This indelible tenet is to a great extent the exemplary efforts of the likes of Mr. Syamal Gupta.

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